“It’s a sense of peace, a feeling of purpose”, my friend said to me during one of our lunchtime conversations on religion and identity, a few years ago. As an atheist, I remember feeling a sense of envy at the enhancement of life she gained through her faith in Islam, an unquestioning contentment that I simply didn’t have access to. “Surely you have something in your life that gives you the same feeling?” she asked. After pondering it for a moment I said… feminism.
As a woman, a domestic abuse survivor and being of dual heritage, identifying as an intersectional feminist became integral to my identity many years ago. It became part of my life as part of my GCSE Sociology course, aged 14. It felt similar to finding a new like-minded friend with shared values, after navigating childhood as a misunderstood minority. Intersectionality (a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw) was the most vital aspect of my feminism: simply put, intersectional feminism became so enmeshed with my sense of self that it’s hard to separate myself from the theory.
“For many years I found a real sense of belonging in feminism, after struggling to find a place in a society that marginalises people who look like me.”
It influences how I understand and accept myself; how I treat others, how I found a purpose in my work as a domestic abuse support worker, and how my commitment to social justice and activism is an innate responsibility. It gives me a lens through which I can think critically about society and it sets a benchmark for what it means to be “good”. Allowing me to understand the world I operate in, and the privileges I do or don’t hold. For many years I found a real sense of belonging in feminism after struggling to find a place in a society that marginalises people who look like me. In ways not too dissimilar to a religion, it felt safe.
Recently, however, I’ve been having a crisis of faith. Navigating mainstream feminism more broadly as an intersectional feminist rarely feels safe. It seldom feels comfortable. And it no longer feels like home. I’m constantly in survival mode. As a Black woman, I routinely walk into mainstream feminist spaces only to find myself the only token brown person in the room, expected to speak for all racial minorities no matter how far removed our lived experiences may be. As a survivor, I seek solace in peer support groups, where trauma is only recognised on a one-dimensional level without considering the multiple vulnerabilities in the room.
“Can a movement’s positive past share space with it’s problematic present?”
The transphobia within domestic abuse services is a prime example of this strange paradox. The sector is indebted to feminism, of that there is no doubt. Feminism has been integral in fighting for the rights of survivors, ensuring domestic abuse is seen as a public, rather than a private, issue. But the issue here is the constant emphasis on female survivors only. Whilst many services are committing to LGBTQ+ inclusivity, there are many who refuse to be trans-inclusive based on outdated misunderstandings and fears. So, it raises the question – can a movement’s positive past share space with it’s problematic present?
Feminism has now become the oppressor in a sector it nurtured. As a trans ally, by profession and by passion, a large part of each day consists of battling with TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). These TERFs hold many positions of power within the sector to a terrifying extent. They shout the loudest. And they’re unapologetic in the way they refuse to ensure their practice is inclusive.
“The more I become emboldened in my allyship, the more uncomfortable I become with a movement that once provided such safety for me.”
The impact of this on survivors who don’t fall into a gender binary is life threatening. When accessing support, the risk of being misgendered, invalidated, dismissed or worse, being treated as a threat to the safety of cisgender survivors deters people from seeking help. This exclusion from women’s services, when there is such a severe lack of specialist support across the country, often means survivors have no alternative but to remain in abusive relationships where their physical and emotional safety, and their identity is at risk.
The more I become emboldened in my allyship, the more uncomfortable I become with a movement that once provided such safety for me. This discomfort has mutated into a daily lived reality that is visceral, touchable, and lives as a pit of discontented anxiety in my stomach. Much like an ugly break up, it feels like an emotional process to navigate. Intersectional feminism is by definition a critique of outdated forms of feminism after all. It’s also the most inclusive branch of the movement to date. Yet my continual existential crisis speaks to the environment feminism continues to foster.
“Feminism may have embedded a sense of purpose in me, but that purpose has now evolved into a fierce allyship that means I can no longer find peace within it.”
This existential crisis often feels like a lonely one. People who have been oppressed themselves are likely to empathise with and recognise oppression faced by other marginalised groups. This means we’re less likely to find safety in places – real or theoretical – that aren’t safe for all. I can’t be both an ally to those a movement doesn’t embrace whilst finding comfort in the parts of a movement that serve me. I’m under no illusion that, as a Black woman, as soon as I stray from what mainstream feminism deems to be acceptable, their façade of allyship melts away.
Those of us from marginalised communities are therefore more likely to feel compelled to leave these spaces. But this leaves us politically and socially alienated, so where do we go? Meanwhile, those who can’t relate to oppression remain and prosper. Should we stay in uncomfortable and unsafe spaces in order to critique and create change from within, at the expense of our morals and mental health?
If feminism is no longer the place for me as a minority and as an ally experiencing both oppression and privilege, where do I find my sense of belonging now? Feminism may have embedded a sense of purpose in me, but that purpose has now evolved into a fierce allyship that means I can no longer feel at peace within it. Maybe that is something I must simply accept. Something I need to move on from. And instead, concentrate my energy on forging safe spaces for those beyond what feminism accepts as the norm.
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